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AOL proggies and punters – A neglected part of internet history

In the 1990s AOL surpassed its competitors CompuServe and Prodigy to become the most visited internet site/portal in the world. AOL CDs were distributed far and wide, some of which said once you tried it, you’d be a different person. They weren’t wrong.

By the end of 1997, AOL had about 8 million users, and its acquisition of CompuServe meant another 5 million users would be added. Unbeknownst to these millions of users was that in a corner of AOL, a thriving, underground application development scene had been growing, creating ‘proggies’ and ‘punters’.

Proggies, sometimes known as ‘progz’ or ‘proggiez’, were independently developed applications that enhanced the AOL user experience. Some proggies that were widely used included Fate X, AOHell, Pepsi, HaVoK, Magenta, FiReTooLz and The EXoRCiST. And going by the names of the latter progz, iT WaS CoNSiDeReD LeeT tO aLTeRNaTe BeTWeeN LoWeR CaSe AnD uPPeR CaSe LeTTeRs.

Proggies gave you capabilities beyond what was available for regular AOL users, which meant you had a choice between using them responsibly or causing chaos. Many people, unsurprisingly, chose the latter option.

Fate X 3.0 by MaGuS & FuNGii
Fate X 3.0 by MaGuS & FuNGii

If you were a regular chatroom user in AOL’s early days, you’d likely be amazed at how some users could create, line-by-line, some impressive artwork using keyboard characters and symbols. This art, known as ASCII art or macros, was a feature in proggies that allowed you to post a few lines, pause for a few seconds to avoid being kicked offline for ‘scrolling’, and continue posting the artwork.

ASCII art of Winnie the Pooh
ASCII art of Winnie the Pooh

Proggies were often bundled with various bots, not quite to the same level of sophistication as ChatGPT, but could be useful nonetheless in AOL chatrooms. ‘Sup’ bots or hello bots enabled you to greet everyone in a chatroom at the touch of a button. AFK bots would keep you online, preventing AOL from kicking you offline after a period of inactivity. Insult bots let you win any argument by flooding your chatroom ‘opponent’ with a variety of pre-written insults, often aimed at their mommas. And instant response bots would let you post an automatic reply to a specific keyword or phrase. If someone said “Bart Simpson”, you could have an automatic reply in place; “Eat my shorts!”

Oftentimes a popular chatroom would be full, and that’s when a ‘room buster’ would come in handy. A room buster would continually attempt to enter a room, automatically retrying each time a notification popped up that the room was full, until someone left and you were able to take their place.

Some proggies came with TOS (Terms of Service) ban features, claiming they could terminate other users’ accounts. In many instances the feature didn’t work, but the concept was supposedly simple. Let’s say you wanted to terminate the AOL account of a user called ‘MaGuS’. The prog would copy the html string of MaGuS’ username and then post something against AOL’s terms of service. AOL would interpret it as MaGuS breaking TOS and would terminate their account.

Pepsi AOL proggie
The Pepsi AOL proggie

The proggie scene also contributed massively to the warez scene, where people shared and downloaded pirated versions of films, music, software and other copyrighted intellectual property before applications like Napster, Limewire and Kazaa took off. Many progs had ‘mass mailers’ or ‘MMers’. These were bots that sent out emails containing lists of downloadable content to those who requested it.

A user would go to a room, for example, named Warez, where someone would be running a mailing list bot. The user would then write a specific line in the chatroom along the lines of “/send list xyz” and within a few seconds, an email would be received from the person running the bot. The email would contain a numbered list of all the items available for download that included music, e-books, video games, proggies and other software. After scanning the list, the user would go back to the room and select what item they wanted by posting “/send item #233 list xyz”. Once again an email would be sent, or several emails depending on the size of the item you had selected, and you’d be free to download it. MMers were sophisticated for their time and some would be running 24 hours a day.

AOL connection screen
AOL connection screen

AOL is often referred to as the Wild West of the internet, particularly among those who were familiar with the proggie scene. You could get away with a lot, and this led people to partake in phishing. As the internet was a novel concept in the mid 90s, people easily fell prey to unscrupulous attempts to secure their credit card and password details. It was easy enough for a user to create a username that appeared official, such as UserWatch11012, and then claim they were AOL staff. They would IM unsuspecting users, claiming there was an issue with their account, and would request the user to share their password or credit card details. Some proggies had password stealers or phishers bundled into their features, which were simply pre-written instant messages (IMs) or emails that people could send out to phish others. Many proggie users and MMers used phish accounts, also written as <>< accounts, so that if they were caught violating AOL’s Terms of Service, it wouldn’t affect their personal accounts.

Punters were a specific category of proggies that enabled users to boot people offline by sending them IMs with HMTL code that would overload their PC or connection’s resources; not a particularly difficult task bearing in mind connecting to AOL was done with 28.8k and 36.6k modems. Some standalone punters were Area51 Punter, Sprite, Da Masta Punta, Boot Final and Boot Special.

A defence against punters was to turn your IMs off, and you’d soon learn to do so before visiting any prog-related chatrooms, where people would be armed to the teeth with various proggies and punters. Some punters even kept a record of every person a user had punted, which you could scroll in a chatroom if you wanted to brag about your punt count. It was always humorous to see Steve Case, the then-CEO of AOL, on many people’s punt lists.

Area51 punter for AOL
Area51 punter for AOL

Overhead Accounts, also known as OH accounts, were special accounts that were supposedly reserved for AOL staff. An OH account was like a regular account on cheat mode. You could IM someone even if they had turned their IMs off; meaning an OH account and a punter was a formidable weapon. You also wouldn’t get kicked offline for typing too many messages too quickly in a chatroom, i.e. scrolling. Some proggies had macros / ascii artwork specifically for OH account holders. Without needing to pause every few lines, the art would be displayed in impressive fashion similar to a flipbook animation.

Getting your hands on an OH account was much more difficult than getting your hands on proggies and punters. Going to a mass mailer chatroom or asking someone you saw posting macros in a chatroom was often enough. However there was some pushback. While some people were adamant that warez should be free, others wanted to restrict the distribution of proggies. If everyone got their hands on one, their capabilities wouldn’t be so special anymore. It also meant AOL would have a greater net to catch people and clamp down on independent application development.

Proggies and punters are now relics of internet history, but for people who used them, they bring back amazing memories. The underground scene brought out the creative talents of many developers, some of whom were teenagers experimenting with Visual Basic; and in the later years a young Mark Zuckerberg dabbled in it, creating the Vader Fader, a proggie that faded text in emails, chatrooms and IMs.

Vader Fader by Mark Zuckerberg
Vader Fader by Mark Zuckerberg
Screenshot from Mark Zuckerberg's old website describing the Vader Fader and Zuck Fader.
Screenshot from Mark Zuckerberg’s old website describing the Vader Fader and Zuck Fader.
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